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Caroline Walker

Caroline Walker

Posted: November 9, 2009 01:56 PM

Fixing Education: Where Do Motivated Kids Come From?

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It would be too easy to make this story about the hardships and woes of young kids in an underserved community. With 36 percent of youth under 18 in Newark, NJ, living in poverty, many are not likely to graduate high school.  But zip codes don't dictate individuals' drive to learn, and districts shouldn't decide who gets to thrive.

No, this story isn't about poor children's struggle or their sad stories — it's about driven, smart, and plain awesome kids. Instead of going to the public schools near their homes — the lowest performing schools in the state of New Jersey — the 1,000 young people at the TEAM Charter Schools in Newark, NJ have opted for a top-of-the-line education that demands more time, energy and brainpower than any public school and promises tireless support from teachers and faculty in return.

It's Cool to Be Smart

TEAM Academy middle school is a place where it's genuinely cool to be smart. As seventh grader Briona Hawkins says, "It's not one of those schools where if you're smart, you're a geek. Well, even if you are, most people here are considered 'geeks' because we all do learn."

But where does that instinct to learn – to work — come from? Junior high school isn't exactly famous for being a time of embracing the inner "geek" and building supportive pre-teen communities. I asked Briona what brought her to TEAM, why she opted for a more demanding, more exhausting schooling — especially at an age when "cool" is king.

"Most kids act the way they do or have a perception about achievement and education based on where and how they're raised,” she says.  “My mom went to good schools, but back then, education kind of really didn't matter ... You didn't need it as much as you need it now. So she went to college and she didn't finish it." Hawkins pauses and thoughtfully says, "She was so close to finishing it but she didn't. She always told me that if she knew what she knows now, she would have finished it and had a better life. And I know I want a better life for my family."

TEAM teacher Ali Nagle noted that students come from all over: Some were pushed toward TEAM by their families, others made the decision themselves and approached their parents with the request. Though administrators used to recruit, they no longer do. Prospective students find them. Most of the kids take advantage of TEAM's free bussing opportunity, an indicator that many families are not in a financial position to own cars. Transportation and income, however, are not likely to be the most compelling factors.

Learning is Fun? Since When?

There's a public school across the street that lets out at 3 p.m. sharp. The 360 TEAM students at the school I visited hear the bell and the exodus of liberated youth. And while they likely daydream from time to time about joining their neighbors in the rush home for an afterschool snack, their classes and activities put study hall to shame.

Hands-on, experiential learning is a priority, as is showing kids how their studies actually apply in the real world. Plugging away through Spanish class for a few semesters? Head to Puerto Rico and practice conversation immersion with the rest of your eighth grade class. All it takes is a 10-minute oral exam with Miss Melendez to make the grade — because, as one student tells me, at TEAM, "You have to earn everything you do." Studying geography and earth sciences? Take a class trip to the Grand Canyon and see the Great Wonder for yourself. (Students were having an after school "practice cook-out" the day I was there, making sure their burgers and hot-dogs were up to par before voyaging out west.) And while no one in my early education ever convinced me I'd use calculus on the outside, these math team stars — with dreams of teaching algebra — may actually have a future in exponents.

They mummify chickens as a farewell to lessons in Egyptian studies. They fashion elaborate dioramas representing scenes from a sixth grade favorite, Gary Paulson's Hatchet. They engage in heated debates during their Liberation Arts requirement, a course focused on civil rights issues. And while other kids have already settled into their after-school lives, from 4:00-5:15 p.m., interested students participate in TEAM in Africa, a course teaching kids about their counterparts in Rwanda and Kenya and what they can do to support these new friends across the globe.

When Briona tells me, "The teachers make it fun," I'm starting to believe her.

The same philosophy of curricular experience and opportunity is applied to paths for their futures. Students are taken on class trips to college campuses long before they've entered high school. They travel to schools, allowing kids to set foot on campuses, ask questions, see for themselves what a mythical university setting looks and feels like.

Says Briona: "When I first came here everybody was like, 'Oh, you should go to college!" And I was like, "OK, I'll go because you want me to go. But I really don't wanna go to college, I really don't care for that. I could just work somewhere else. When I first came here I was like, 'Wow, I really do need to go to college." And all of the colleges they take us to are like Georgetown ... I love Georgetown.

"My friends [at other schools] will say, 'Oh my god. You get out of school at 5:00? I would never go to that school!'" she continues. "And I'm like, "Well, it's not that bad because the teachers make it fun and we have as much fun here as you can." After, she tells them about trips to Georgetown, Rwanda and the Grand Canyon, about tricks for learning Spanish (associate words and phrases with physical movement, often awkward or hilarious). She tells me that they say to her, "'Wow, that's really cool! I wish I could go there! I wish I could take these trips and see all these different colleges!'"

And here lies my theory on why these young people are opting for the challenge of learning: Word is getting around that "fun" isn't an academic myth — and other kids want in on the fun.

Taking Education Seriously

For all that fun, however, there is a striking order and ease at the school. Ali Nagle's afternoon fifth grade reading class begins so peacefully I'm sure they are playing a trick on me. Students settle into a bright, worldly classroom, sit quietly at their desks and dive into their own books and periodicals for 15 minutes of free reading. Bob Marley is playing softly in the front of the room. A few students sit in a semi-circle on the carpet while Nagle's co-teacher, Miss Lochard, reads out loud to them.

The walls are covered with photographs from student trips to Africa, clocks telling international times (LA, Newark, Barcelona, Tehran, Tokyo), motivational signs and tips for reading and writing. On the wall across from me is a poster that reads: "There is nothing in all the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. You have a moral responsibility to be intelligent." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That message stays close to home in their own TEAM community. "I think it's definitely hard for kids who come here with a [low reading level]," says Briona. "But we don't judge them, we just help them. We want them to be on the same level, we want them to progress. We love everybody the same so we say, 'Come on, let's get some help.'"

Fellow seventh grader Ayanna Costley adds, "It's like a 'chain of being the change,' because if I help Brianna with her science homework, then she'll find another way to help somebody else. She could help Whitney do her reading homework ... we all try to be the change to help each other."

Teachers hold up their end of the bargain too. When students asked to initiate a program on the ground in Africa, Nagle thought: "I've come up with some crazy ideas for things I wanted to do [at this school]," she says, "and no one has ever told me no. They say, 'Sure, go ahead and do it!' I felt like I owed that to the kids."

They started a Penny War to raise money to publish textbooks for kids in Kenya and Rwanda and build a Rwandan school. Then they made arrangements to let the program's strongest youth supporters experience the results of their hard work. A group of students and faculty took a trip last summer.

Nagle pauses, then smiles: "All these kids trust and believe that what they're doing is having some kind of impact, but to touch the building that your pennies built is pretty cool."

In a recent discussion at NYU's Center for Global Affairs speaker series, writer and champion of grassroots change Nicholas Kristof spoke of the most important things people can do to be a part of the solution. Top of his list? Travel. See the world. Know what's out there and connect with other people. TEAM students are getting a head start on framing their worldview and realizing their own power to make their personal difference.

A Lasting Impact

Are their programs and opportunities replicable on a greater scale, spreading to public schools and institutions without access to the grant support charter schools access? Probably not on this scale. Does that mean it can't be tried, even if only piecemeal? Why not? If rumor can spread that learning can be fun, engaging and exciting, maybe we can change the way kids look at education — and their futures.

Nagle notes: "They all know they're educating themselves, they're changing [perceptions]. ... When they go out and do great things, we want them to come back and change Newark; I think they're realizing you don't have to wait until you're out of college. They're changing things right now."

Overcoming tough odds is only the tip of the iceberg; underneath, regardless of their hometown, we're better off for the future teacher (Whitney), lawyer (Briona) and CIA agent (Ayanna), each well on their way to changing our world.

For more on children changing the world, visit Tonic, the "good news" website.


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